An hour after sunset, with Naboo’s moon rising at gibbous, their party moved through the dark as the forest canopy rustled in the cool breeze. Nocturnal birds hooted and rodents scurried by, paws scraping against the dry soil. Palming his lightsaber, Qui-Gon parted the underbrush with nary a sound. JarJar shadowed him, the Gungan’s long gait swallowing the ground, and then he broke off to disappear into the trees. Headmaster Dannt, his team armed with the stolen ordnance, led his students in flanking positions, the crack of dried twigs snapping underfoot the only sign of their movement. Captain Panaka in the Energy Pummel brought up the rear while Cordé, Dormé, and Thule drove the speeders, their whir a faint distraction.
It would have been better to do this under the dark of a new moon, but to strike when least expected was the key to their plan. The moon’s pale glow turned the canopy leaves jade, reminding Qui-Gon of the verdigris domes of Theed’s palaces and estates.
The Force warned him of hostility. No doubt, since they were closing in on the Separatist the mining camp; the pulsing thump of the plasma miner reverberated under Qui-Gon’s feet. Before he could take the sentry out with a leg sweep, blaster fire erupted in the distance, several shots from two, then three different blasters.
Voices shouted, and then Qui-Gon came face to face with the sentry. Unsurprised — unlike the latter — Qui-Gon ignited his lightsaber while swinging, the hum gentle against the forest noise. The blade sliced clean through the armor and the body smacked into the dirt. Qui-Gon deactivated his lightsaber and moved to the next target.
Then the forest erupted in blaster fire.
Red and green bolts whizzed by like flash fire. Qui-Gon activated his lightsaber, blocked a blaster bolt back to its source, and a voice cried out. Then he hurried onward, blocking bolt after bolt, letting the Force guide him, his glowing green blade making him a target. Suddenly, screams cut through the noise, the blaster bolts going wide. With the barrage silenced on his end, Qui-Gon waited for retaliation. But then JarJar breezed past, the flap of his loincloth the only sound to mark his passing. Then another chorus of screams followed. The blaster fire didn’t cease, but Qui-Gon sensed an incoming bolt and deflected it back, the sentry going down with a shout. Qui-Gon deactivated his lightsaber, the better to maintain his cover, then pushed through the trees towards the hillock.
He stopped before he parted the treeline, the pulsing thump working its way up his legs to a spot deep in his belly. Blocked by the rise, a searchlight scanned the trees, glossing over the canopy and missing the forest floor. The Force shouted a warning. Qui-Gon ducked behind a tree just as the shuffle and scrape of booted feet headed up the hill. When the searchlight cast the Separatist commandos in silhouette, b laster fire erupted from the dark forest.
Four separate bolts missed Qui-Gon completely. The commando silhouettes went down, some with a shout, the others ducking out of the line of fire. The commandos returned fire, the shots careening wildly and giving away their position. Trees ignited, brief sparks and explosions, the flames dying out as soon as they burst to life.
A whisper of the leaves to announced JarJar’s arrival. Qui-Gon turned to acknowledge his presence. Gungans were no more nocturnal than humans, but the moon’s glow cast his gray eyes silver.
The next part was the hardest; even a Jedi could only do so much. As the blaster fire bounced back and forth, red to green and back again, Qui-Gon led the way out of their hiding place and up the hillock.
JarJar swept forward, a shade among the darkness. Suddenly, the commandos screamed, their blaster fire careening into the sky. The screams went silent. Qui-Gon hurried up the hillock, pressing his body into the forest loam. At the crest, JarJar joined him, silent footsteps and movement.
The ground rumbled. Below, perimeter lights lit up the area, hurling conflicting shadows against the gray-brown ground. Separatists commandos and their non-helmet-wearing commander were scrambling, the laser turret rotating towards the hillock. Qui-Gon and JarJar ducked back into the cover of darkness.
As he told Captain Panaka, he could only protect; he couldn’t fight a war. Nevertheless, Qui-Gon whispered for JarJar to “Hold here”, and then made his way back to the treeline. Headmaster Dannt and Dané were waiting just inside the forest cover. Qui-Gon gathered them close and kept his voice low, describing the situation. Dané flashed a sliver of white teeth and whispered, “Leave it to me.”
Qui-Gon returned to JarJar’s side. Nothing had changed at the mine; no doubt the mine operators were hoping to catch the insurgents off-guard. Dané approached, sprawled on her belly, and peered over the rise. She pulled a grenade launcher forward, placed her shoulder against the grip, and said, “Cover your ears.” Qui-Gon obeyed. He didn’t see whether or not JarJar did, too. Four rounds fired off in rapid succession, the velocity rippling through the air like a physical blow. At the mine, the laser turret exploded in a ball of flames, the heat searing the fine hairs off his cheeks.
Qui-Gon blinked the fireball-shaped spot out of his eyes. The other Naboo arrived, the flickering fire picking out their movements. Dané set aside the grenade launcher as Headmaster Dannt passed her a sniper rifle. She lined up her sights and her shoulder jerked from the recoil, shot after shot whizzing down the barrel.
Gregor Typho and Ric Olié set up a mounted blaster cannon, but didn’t fire.
The Force shouted a warning. Qui-Gon grabbed the barrel and dragged sniper rifle over, aiming it at a Separatist commando pointing a portable plasma cannon at their position. The shot flashed from the sniper rifle, dropping the commando instantly.
Silence fell. The thumping pulse of the plasma miner had also fallen still, and the flames from the destroyed laser cannon crackled as the Naboo held their breath.
The snap and crash of felled trees rent the silence, a resounding cacophony that sent birds to wing, their silhouettes erratic against the moon. The Naboo turned toward the noise, Qui-Gon sensing their alarm like a sharp edge. Even with the shafts of moonlight punctuating the canopy’s agitation, the snap and crash of falling trees hinted at something big.
When the last line of trees thundered, the dust cloud wafting through the moonlight, the reveal took Qui-Gon’s breath away. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
A troop transport sailed over the felled trees, large enough to block the path behind it, and also large enough to flatten hundreds of meters of prime forest. The transport rolled to a halt, lowered itself onto the grass, and the gangplank swung down with a metallic crash. Under the harsh utility lights, red uniforms hurried out.
Gregor Typho unleashed the mounted blaster cannon, the rapid fire spraying through the commandos like a wave. Then the Energy Pummel sounded off some distance away, repeated impacts sending the red uniforms sky high.
Without warning, a trumpet sounded. The Naboo turned, silent, tense. When the trumpet faded, a guttural noise took its place, like hundreds of voices raised in anger. Ululations followed, and the ground shook.
The Gungans flooded out of the trees, swept over the troop transport and hurled blue plasma grenades into the driver’s compartment. More plasma grenades exploded onto the commandos, personal energy shields absorbing the return fire. Red blaster bolts whizzed through the air, taking down a few of the Gungans, but many were too quick, thrusting their spears into bodies, swinging their battle axes into masks. A head went flying.
Qui-Gon felt a ripple of warning in the Force. Soon, two starfighters zoomed by overhead, their laser cannons strafing through the forest. Qui-Gon ordered everyone to “Run!” The Naboo grabbed their weapons and swept over the rise, the landcruisers and Energy Pommel bringing up the rear. As they hurried down the hillock, it erupted, spraying dirt and noise. The shockwave knocked Qui-Gon head over heels and he landed on his back, winded. Beside him, Dané pushed herself up, shaking her head to clear it. Ears ringing, Qui-Gon sat up, and saw commandos bearing down on them. At that moment, the landcruisers, having been spared the brunt of the shockwave, swung around and fired their mounted laser cannons, taking out most of the red uniforms.
Still, blaster bolts whizzed through the air, catching Ric Olié as he tried to help Headmaster Dannt to his feet. Qui-Gon scrambled up, palmed his lightsaber and rushed forward, placing himself in front the Naboo and being the defender the Jedi were known to be.
Qui-Gon deflected a blaster bolt back to its source, and watched the commando crumple. More bolts whipped through the air, a barrage that had Qui-Gon losing ground instead of gaining it. Out the corner of his eye, he spotted the Naboo helping each other into the landcruisers or running for the dismantled mine.
At that moment, the Separatist starfighters returned, lasers ripping into the ground. One of the landcruisers took a shot to the rear. The engine exploded in a shower of sparks, dropping the repulsor field. It crashed into the ground and the handmaiden slumped over the controls.
The Gungan’s rolled their anti-air missile launchers onto the field, aimed for the starfighters, and let loose large blue plasma grenades. Two missed and struck the commandos, flattening them, but three more struck one of the starfighter. It sparked and spiraled down, crashing into the forest with a towering plume of smoke and flames.
At that moment, the Energy Pummel ceased firing. As Thule took a blaster bolt to the shoulder, spinning around to land backwards over his landcruiser seat, the Energy Pummel gave off a shower of sparks. The hatch opened and Captain Panaka exited, fleeing in a dead run. The Pummel exploded, the flames spreading. As Panaka reached Qui-Gon, he screamed, “Retreat! Retreat!”
Through the flames, six of Energy Pummels appeared, firing at the Gungans and at the forest, igniting fires.
Qui-Gon whirled and leapt onto the last landcruiser, grabbing the back of the seat to maintain his balance. “Go!”
The remaining handmaiden jerked the controls, swinging the landcruiser around, and under the hail of blaster bolts sped back to the forest. The Force aided Qui-Gon. He ducked several blaster bolts to the head, deflected the others away from the handmaiden. As they closed the distance, the Gungans and the Naboo were fleeing up what remained of the hillock, some taking a hit and rolling back down. The landcruiser swept up the hillock, the motor whirring. Qui-Gon checked over his shoulder. The Separatist commandos gave chase, half of them holding position and firing while the other half hurried up the hill. The Energy Pummels were busy taking out the Gungans fleeing in the opposite direction. A tremor in the Force gave Qui-Gon a warning.
One of the Energy Pummels turned, aiming at the hillock. In repeated flashes, lasers blasts slammed into the hill, hurling up grass and dirt. Qui-Gon squinted against the debris flying into his face just as the landcruiser took a shot to the rear.
Qui-Gon flew over the side. He instinctively tucked and rolled down the hill, his lightsaber deactivating, his hand clenching around it. Moonlight and darkness swapped places in his vision as the noise of laser fire and the cries of the dying echoed in his ears. He tumbled to a stop, the air punched out of him. He had landed next to a Gungan’s body, not JarJar, though Headmaster Dannt was close by. Qui-Gon looked up.
Separatist commandos marched forward, their rifles aimed, too many to take on at once, even for a Jedi. Their leader snatched Qui-Gon’s lightsaber out of his hand. “Stand up.”
Qui-Gon climbed to his feet. He drew on his calm to suffer the binding of his wrists behind his back. Then they forced marched him back to the troop transport, along with the rounded up Naboo, including Captain Panaka, but not JarJar. Perhaps he and the Gungans had reached the forest? Qui-Gon could only hope.
Dané had survived, too, as well as the last handmaiden and Gregor Typho. They were all marched into the transport and forced to sit on a bench.
“What’s going to happen to us?” the handmaiden, Cordé, asked.
With a groan, the gangplank slammed into place, the metallic clang the only answer.